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Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or Legalistic Sectarian Deism?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Deaton introduced the term moralistic therapeutic deism. The phrase has become well used to describe the content of much of the teaching of Christian churches in the U.S.

As the name suggests, the view of Christian that this describes has three (obvious) core elements:

  1. moralistic — having a good and happy life means living a moral life.
  2. therapeutic — living morally is done for its therapeutic benefits, such as lowering stress and having good relationship.
  3. deistic — God is remote. He created the world, but he is not actively involved in it now.

As I said, moralistic therapeutic deism is supposed to describe the common religious beliefs of American youth. These beliefs form the content of much of the teaching about Christianity.

My Experience

I’ve read enough pop Christian books and visited enough churches to know that this is a good description of the teaching of many churches. But it doesn’t describe what I was taught when I was growing up.

I grew up in churches that were very legalistic and sectarian. For years, I believe that if a new convert were to let a curse word slip before his car was hit by a speeding truck, instantly killing the new Christian, he was going to hell. I was also raised in churches that not only thought other denominations were going to hell, but was pretty certain that most of the congregations in our own denomination were heretical.

Of course, I was taught the importance of living a moral life. The reason was almost never therapeutic, but that I should avoid the fires of hell.

I can relate to the deism in Smith and Denton’s conception. I was taught God is remote, so much so that some of the churches even doubted the continuing operation of the Holy Spirit (not just with miraculous gifts, but even with conviction and the illumination of the Bible).

I was not taught moralistic therapeutic deism.

Legalistic Sectarian Deism

I was taught what I’ll call legalistic sectarian deism. That sums up pretty well the Christianity I was raised in and what those churches taught.

The three elements:

  1. legalistic — having a good life is obeying the laws that God set up, and if you break the least of them you are in danger of hell. Be careful.
  2. sectarian — a lot of people think they are living Christian lives, but they are mistaken and therefore damned. Be careful.
  3. deism — God created the world, but he is currently remote. Be careful (that you don’t live as if He is not remote).

I imagine most teenagers are taught moralistic therapeutic deism, but at least a small group of teenagers are taught legalistic sectarian deism.

Both are dangerous and damaging. I’m not sure which is the most dangerous and damaging.

Christianity Ministry

N. T. Wright on the Central Role of the Bible in Ministry

I’ve spent the last two nights reading N. T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.

But I wanted to share with you one (long) passage where Wright describes the minister’s responsibility in handling and preaching the Scriptures. I found it convicting and moving:

“At the same time, God is at work by the same means to order the life of the church, and of individual Christians, to model and embody his project of new creation in their unity and holiness. To be a leader in the church is, almost by definition, to be one through whose work this mission comes about, enabled and directed by this scripture-based energy; and one through whom, again with scriptural energy to the fore, that unity and holiness is generated and sustained.

“If, therefore, those called to office and leadership roles in the church remain content merely to organize and manage the internal affairs of the church, they are leaving a vacuum exactly where there ought to be vibrant, pulsating life. Of course Christian leaders need to be trained and equipped for management, for running of the organization. The church will not thrive by performing in a bumbling, amateur fashion and hoping that piety and goodwill will make up for incompetence. But how much more should a Christian minister be a serious professional when it comes to grappling with scripture and discovering how it enables him or her, in preaching, teaching, prayer, and pastoral work, to engage with the huge issues that confront us as a society and as individuals. If we are professional about other things, we ought to be ashamed not to be properly equipped both to study the Bible ourselves or to bring its ever-fresh word to others.

“The teaching and preaching of scripture remains, then, at the heart of the church’s life, alongside and regularly interwoven with the sacramental life focused on the Eucharist….The balance between what can be said in a sermon and what must be said in non-liturgical teaching, adult education, and so on, will vary from church to church and place to place. It is fair to say that most churches, even those with well-developed educational programs, have a long way to go in their teaching of scripture. It is also important to remind preachers that, just as some of the Reformers spoke of the sacraments as God’s ‘visible words,’ so sermons are supposed to be ‘audible sacraments.’ They are not simply for the conveying of information, though that is important in a world increasingly ignorant of some of the most basic biblical and theological information. They are not simply for exhortation, still less for entertainment. They are supposed to be one of the moments in regular Christian living when heaven and earth meet. Speaker and hearers alike are called to be people in whom, by the work of the Spirit, God’s word is once again audible to the heart as well as to the ears. Preaching is one key way in which God’s personal authority, vested in scripture and operative through the work of the Spirit, is played out in the life of the church.” (Emphasis mine.)

(N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, p. 138-39)


Should Churches Sing Old Hymns?

Let me ask a question about worship songs: are there good reasons to sing older songs and hymns during worship?

I think that question gets asked a good bit. I’m unqualified to speak of trends in contemporary worship music. But it does seem that there has been a renewed interest in older hymns the last few years. So let me ask a stronger question: are there good reasons to sing older songs and hymns as frequently as we sing newer songs?

I think there are. Let me start by recapping some of C. S. Lewis’s comments about books, and then I’ll apply them to worship songs.


Lewis’s Arguments About Reading Old Books

In his Introduction to a new translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis forcefully argued that you should read as many old books as you do new books.  He recommends that you read one old book for every new book you read. (Lewis was specifically talking about theological books. I think, though, that his reasons can be expanded to apply to all kinds of reading.)

Why does he recommend this? He gives three reasons:

First, he thought that the layperson should read old books because the layperson would get a greater sense of what Lewis chose to call “mere Christianity”. If you mix in older Christian books with your reading of newer books, you can come to an understanding of what the orthodox church has always held. Only reading modern books might lead you to a narrow or misguided view of what Christianity is. (Every era has its own bias and emphases.)

Second, the classics have stood the test of time; that is, they have been tested by different and diverse generations and have been considered well worth reading. Over the centuries, the hidden assumptions and implications of the books have been tested by Christians. The books were not found to lie outside of the boundaries of “mere Christianity.”

Third, old books “correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” Our generation is prone to make certain theological mistakes and to emphasize certain theological truths at the expense of other truths. Older books help us correct these mistakes and overemphasis.

Three Arguments For Singing (Many) Old Hymns

I think these three arguments can be adapted to make an equally forceful case that we should sing many old hymns – even as many old songs and hymns as we sing newer songs.

Here are the three arguments:

1. We should sing old hymns because they give us a sense of “mere Christianity.” Perhaps it doesn’t seem this way, but hymns do teach us theology. We could learn from the Eastern Orthodox Church. They view their liturgy as one of the main sources of instruction for their worshippers. Our songs should be a source of Christian teaching for us. And when we frequently sing older hymns, we get a sense of the core Christian teachings that the church has always believed.

2. The older hymns have stood the test of time. A lot of songs and hymns were written that haven’t really stayed in use in Christian worship. The ones that did were the ones that stood the test of time, both musically and theologically.

3. The older hymns will help correct our generation’s unique tendencies to believe certain errors and overemphasize certain truths. This is similar, though distinct from, the second point. Since our hymns and songs teach us about our faith, then older hymns can teach us (or simply remind us of) teachings that we underemphasize or have simply gotten wrong.

One of my favorite examples of this is from the third verse of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

Whenever I sing this verse, it reminds me that, because of sin in my life, I am prone to leave God. What I need is God’s work on my heart to keep me secure is His grace.

Newer songs often do not remind me of my sinfulness. This hymn reminds me of that basic Christian teaching.


There are good reasons to work older hymns and songs into our worship. (And please note that I am not suggesting we only sing old songs.) Maybe these reasons can support the same ratio of old hymns to new hymns that C. S. Lewis recommended for books – one old hymn for every new song we sing. Whatever the mixture, I think it is wise for churches to make frequent use of the older hymns. They might not have the musical qualities that are preferred today – but why should the church should make its decisions based only upon the musical qualities of those songs?

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