A few months ago I found myself in the unenviable task of convincing a young man, professing to be a Christian, from cohabiting with a young lady whom he had been dating for over a year. She had moved in to live with him, although the two were not married. He argued that what they had done was perfectly right for two consenting adults, and that it was this living together which would ultimately form the basis of their decision, whether to go ahead with marriage or part ways. “We wish to know each other better, and we can only do so by living together in the same apartment,” he maintained.

I asked him, if he had given serious thought to what the Bible taught concerning his decision, and he was quick to say that there were certain personal decisions we make that must be cut loose from the moorings of Biblical revelation, as long as the two parties involved were happy. The young man was essentially saying that individual happiness supersedes the commands of Scripture.

The conclusions of this young man are not at all surprising. We are now seeing this kind of thinking with increasing frequency, and people’s consciences are becoming less and less bothered by such moral travesties. We are rapidly becoming a society undergoing revolutionary cultural changes, and at the core of this change is the repudiation of the Bible as the absolute standard for our life. God and his Word no longer dominate the moral horizon, while personal autonomy and individual choice have become the twin pillars of a debased moral worldview. A post-modern relativistic worldview has come to roost in Zambia.

We might think that the backlash of this kind of thinking is merely confined to individuals who make such choices, and so its effects cannot be felt on a larger scale in any society. How mistaken we can be! David Wells likens this inability to see and resist the oddness of what is happening in modern culture to the proverbial frog in the pot beneath which a fire has been kindled. “Because the water temperature rises slowly, the frog remains unaware of the danger until it is too late.”[1] Societies, like the proverbial frog, are growing comfortable with many moral aberrations, and tragically, even the church seems to be blithely unaware of the peril that now surrounds it.

Any society that relativizes moral issues and treats them with a perfunctory approach is basically laying powerful explosives to the foundation that holds its stability and success, and it will not be long before it comes crashing down. But when we begin to discourse about morality in this pluralistic and postmodern age, mingled with our typical African values and traditions, several questions immediately come to the fore: Do we have an authoritative standard by which we are to understand and interpret moral life? If so, what is that standard? Working within a theistic framework, I will expound on the biblical doctrine of morality and propose why it is essential for any society. I will then demonstrate how our society falls short of that standard and the clear consequences arising thereof. I will conclude by offering suggestions on how, as a country, we can lay this foundation of success anchored in morality.

What Is Morality?

People discuss morality quite often and many of our actions are based on assumptions about it. The word morality comes from the Latin word mos, which is related to meteri, “to measure.”[2] It is, therefore, a term that explains the distinction between right and wrong. Morals deal with behaviours as well as motives. Morality is, therefore, more than just the exterior human conduct; it also involves the interior. It is properly motivated conduct. This is what sets morality apart from legalism, which is doing something merely because the law demands it.

Christian Morality

It can be plausibly argued that most secular schemes of morality lack adequate foundations for ethical behaviour. It is beyond the scope of this article to open up this argument further. Suffice to say that world history can prove this assertion fairly easily. Christian morality or biblical morality is based upon a fourfold assumption:

  1. It assumes the existence of a personal, supreme and sovereign God.
  2. It assumes that God is, himself, a moral being.
  3. It assumes that God has personally revealed his essential moral character and will to man.
  4. It assumes that man, in his sanctified moral consciousness, and God-likeness, has an intuitive sense of what is right and good.

Biblical morality, therefore, is rooted in an unchanging, holy, just, and sovereign God who has revealed moral laws in the Bible. As the renewed person is confronted with the various situations of life, his heart and mind spontaneously respond in ways that reflect and even testify of the divine exemplar after which the heart has been renewed. John Murray posits that “over a period of time this type of response, exemplified in a great number of individuals, establishes a tradition or consensus of behaviour, for the reason that the image after which men are renewed is the same and the utterances which this image dictates are similar in similar situations…Thus, it may be argued, the biblical ethic is formed, codified, and systematised.”[3]

In the Old Testament, morality is codified in the Decalogue. Both in the Old and New Testaments, the Decalogue has a vertical moral norm (man’s right relationship with and conduct towards God) and the horizontal moral norm (man’s right relationship with and conduct toward his fellows). Furthermore, in the Decalogue, God purposed to hand down to man’s fallen, subjective moral nature, the objective moral norm without which man would be left subject to the determination of his perverted moral nature (Jam. 1:14–15, ESV). Even for those who are without the law, Paul argues that there is an inscription in their moral constitution to do the things, which are in agreement with the requirement of the law (Rom. 2:14–15).

The New Testament’s requirement to love God and our fellow man is a fulfilment of the law first announced in the Old Testament (Mk. 12:30–31; Matt. 22:37–40; Rom. 13:10).

Moral Evacuation – Paying The High Price

Students of history will not fail to see that a society cannot long survive unless it is based on moral foundations. A society in which morality is reduced to individual preferences and convenience soon discovers that such limitless individual liberties are like sitting on a two-legged stool, it cannot keep one in balance for long. These things begin to gnaw at the common values that hold society together in the first place. What is it that led to the collapse of Athens, the birthplace of democracy? The Athenians were seeking freedom from responsibility and in the end they lost everything – security, statehood and freedom.

Not long ago, the walls of Communism came tumbling down because that ideology denied all that the Judeo-Christian tradition taught about individual worth, human dignity, and moral responsibility. It should not come as a total surprise that it collapsed after a relatively brief existence. Closer to home, some of the most serious problems we are grappling with as a nation today are problems, ultimately, having to do with crevices in the moral foundations of our society. The state of our politics speaks volumes about the poverty of well-grounded ideology and principles among many of our political players. I think I will not be wrong to say that we have seen a clique of barefaced opportunists driven by their love for power and money, making their entrance on the political platform with frightening frequency.

In the realm of business, individuals are willing to trade morality for instant financial rewards. Is it shocking that billions of kwachas are being unearthed beneath concrete basements? In our learning institutions, good grades are up for sale to the highest bidder for one to graduate. Hard-core pornography is not only watched, but also made in the campus rooms and boarding houses of our prestigious learning institutions. As if this was not enough, the rate of teenage pregnancies along with abortions is nothing short of alarming.

The fight against HIV and AIDS is hardly being won. This is because of the rising tide of prostitution and other forms of sexual permissiveness and drunkenness. As a nation we have one of the highest alcohol consumption rates south of the equator, and we have other vices besides which rank us lowly on the moral index. Who can blame us when we cry with the psalmist, “Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.” (Ps. 12:1).

Although it is true to say that there is a remnant that has not bowed the knee to Baal, it is also fair to say that a good portion of the church in Zambia has not been spared from this moral lapse. Post-modernism, syncretistic beliefs, and traditional practices entrenched in our animistic worldview have subtly transformed some churches and individual pastors into cultural conformists and imitators, and the moral high tone that much of the church once commanded is now a far distant whisper.

Clearly, there is a moral haemorrhage, which must be treated immediately before our society passes out. But can anything be done about this dire situation?

Rebuilding The Broken Foundations Of Morality

One of the strange ways of God’s providence is that reformation in the church’s life, which in turn spills over to the rest of society, has often been triggered by social or moral disorder. As David Wells notes, “Before God rebuilds, he often pulls down and plucks up.”[4] There is no denying that as a nation we are presently morally down. God needs to lift us up. But what can we do for God to bless us? Let me suggest that:

  1. We must have a clear diagnosis of the root cause of this moral quandary. It should not escape our minds that the real cause here is sin. And therefore, our efforts, if they are to be successful, must be channelled towards dislodging sin. And no better institution has the right resources to do this than the church. Sin is so interwoven into our lives and institutional structures that we can hardly see it. The only solution to this problem is the transforming power of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has brought access to the world of a moral reality from which sinners are alienated.
  2. We must stress the teaching of the holiness of God. Sin has emptied people of the capacity to see the world in moral terms, and the reason for this is that we have lost the biblical vision of God as holy. If morality is divorced from the holiness of God, we reduce it to little more than an accumulation of trade-offs between competing private interests. Our pulpits must not shy away from confronting the moral issues of the day. We must not be reluctant to speak honestly about evil.
  3. We must uphold the Bible as the only standard of morality and cultural authority (2 Tim. 3:16)
  4. We must live in this wicked world like redeemed people, reflecting the delightful and liberating freedom of living under God’s rule by grace (Eph. 4:17–24).
  5. We must encourage, and pray for the Christians in public office to live a morally upright and exemplary life as well as to fight for social justice (1 Tim. 2:1).
  6. We must nurture and instruct our children in a worldview that is deeply rooted in the Scriptures (Eph. 6:4). If the present generation of men and women is lost to sin, perhaps our children can be the means of lifting the banner of truth that will transform our society.

[1] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1993), 91.

[2] Jochem Douma, Responsible Conduct: Principles of Christian Ethics (Phillisburg, NJ.: P& R Publishing, 2003), 3.

[3] John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), 20, 21.

[4] Wells, 91.