Close, But Not Quite: Tim Elmore, the Plumb Line, and Timeless Values
The moral decline in America is finally gaining notice, and not merely from Christians. Recently, Tim Elmore—writing in The Huffington Post—addressed this very issue. Elmore rightly concludes that absolute truths are necessary. As Elmore put it:
“While the list isn’t likely long, we must maintain a universal set of values, ethics and morals among all humanity. But as the pendulum of history swung from black and white to gray, we’ve become afraid to do so. Have you noticed the drift away from any judgment or evaluation of behavior for fear it’s improper? In the name of tolerance, our ability to possess wise judgment evaporates.”
As a result, what we have now is a generation of young adults who are not just amoral but also apathetic. Elmore suggests that the only remedy for this is a set of core principles that can be agreed upon by everyone and accepted as truths in any and all circumstances:
“At the risk of oversimplifying, we need a plumb line for our morals today — an outside source that helps us evaluate our shifting morals so they aren’t merely reflections of what gives us pleasure, what others think or feel, or even what gets us where we want to go…At the same time, it seems so antiquated to bring up old, stale, traditional values…I simply propose that old doesn’t equal irrelevant. Isn’t it possible that “old” could mean timeless? Even though our world population now contains over seven billion people, could we say (for instance) that love, honesty and empathy are timeless and universal for all people?”
This is where Elmore, sadly, begins to break down: while love, honesty, and empathy sound wonderful, they are hardly universal for all people.
The Auca Indians of Ecuador, for example, were legendary for their savagery: they killed others—and even themselves—for any or no reason. The first Christian missionaries—among whom were Jim Elliot and Nate Saint—died at the hands of the Aucas in 1956. Thankfully, Christians continued to reach out to them and, today, the once-murderous Aucas are largely Christian.
Nor is “love”–even when accepted in a society—understood the same way in all cultures. The ancient Greeks engaged in pederasty—sexual relations between adult males and boys. In the Middle East, “child brides” are not uncommon.
While Elmore is correct in that we need a plumb line, he incorrectly posits that we can derive it from universal cultural norms. While American society once had an objective plumb line, we have, over the years, buried it as we collectively exchanged the truth of God for the fleeting pleasures of a moral relativism that is giving way to an insidious Nihilism that is evidenced—at the margins—by suicides and mass shootings.
Unfortunately, Christians have created some of the problem here, as Christians often make the mistake of presenting their faith in terms of morality rather than core principles rooted in the person and character of God. On one extreme, Christianity is all rule-based, performance-based morality that leads to frustration as we fall short of the glory; on the other extreme, we have a morality is disengaged from the world and resembles Islamic fatalism rather than proclamations of a loving God who made everything in His wisdom and His time and His goodness, and Who reaches out to a fallen Humanity.
Other Christians, adding insult to injury, have not only bought into relative morality, they also promote it within the church, further muddying the waters: they present lies packaged as truth.
While Elmore was spot-on in his assessment of our young generation, his recommended treatment is short of the glory.
That God sent His Son–who took time to chat with a Samaritan woman, call out tax collectors and “sinners”, heal people who were otherwise outcasts, work tirelessly in training and teaching twelve men who would turn the world upside down without firing a shot–into the world, provides a basis for the compassion of Christian morality.
As David said in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, and forget not His benefits.”
May our nation rediscover that the Lord is good, and His ways are the paths of life.