According to a recent Barna Survey on Worldview in the United States, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (or MTD for short) is the predominant worldview in the United States. According to the survey results, three out of four people who operate and make decisions from this MTD belief system consider themselves to be Christians. So what’s the issue? Well, to put it bluntly, MTD in the Church is a distorted gospel, and that, is NOT “good news” at all.
Let me start by asking if any of these ways of thinking sound familiar:
“Didn’t get the job you wanted…God must have a better job in store for you (often, though not always, meaning a more lucrative and/or enjoyable job).”
“In a tough marriage…God doesn’t want you to suffer through it, He would be okay with you leaving the marriage.
If you work hard and do the right thing, it will all work out in the end.
These are all “it will all be ok.” MTD ways of thinking that have trickled in and taken over a large portion of the Christian view. Unfortunately, this contradicts a true Gospel view where life will only truly turn to good when Christ returns!
But before we get ahead of ourselves let’s look into what MTD is and why it’s such a threat.
So What Is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a belief system that has cropped up in the 21st Century, although its roots go back much further.
Let’s take a look at what MTD is by breaking it down into its components.
First, “Deism” is the idea that God is real but distant. He might care, but He’s generally not intimately involved in our lives. On that note, we’d have to call the Deism part of MTD, Deism-” lite” because it does not follow a strict definition of Deism which would hold that God is never intimately involved in our lives or the goings-on of this world. Instead, God is more Santa Clause vending machine that we can call upon in need.
Next, “Moralistic” is the belief that we should do good and do right to others, though the basis for doing good is left to one’s own interpretation.
Finally, “Therapeutic” is a belief that God will make things better especially if we are seeking to do what’s right. Obviously, this conflicts with the “Deism” part, and that’s the interesting thing about lived-out beliefs, they often don’t make total intellectual or rational sense. But an MTD adherent might argue it this way: “God generally leaves us to live our lives except when we really need Him to be involved, like when we are in a bind of our own doing or because of circumstances. Then he comes to our aid.”
Where MTD exists in the Church, Jesus is inserted in the “Therapeutic” element of the belief system. He died so we could live…and for the MTD adherent, so we could live as we want.
What’s the Problem With It (Besides That It’s False…)
MTD distorts the true Gospel by promising that we can stay in control of our lives and have what we want now (or at least in the not-so-distant future). When in reality Jesus said that to follow Him we must take up our cross daily 1, the very picture of dying to our own control and wants. And Jesus went on to say, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” 2
While MTD says instead, “You can remain in control and have all that you want now.” MTD caters to the flesh and it says, “God wants you to be happy so he’ll give it to you or wouldn’t mind if you did whatever you needed to do to get it, even if it means bending a few of His rules (e.g. “to disobey”), just don’t be a bad person overall.” MTD puts you at the focal point. It’s a me-centered philosophy, not a Christ-centered theology. It is not concerned with worship of a holy God.
To the mission of the Church, MTD is like dry-rot, the fungus that eats away at wood from the inside out. Get dry-rot around your home and you’ve got a problem. Now the wood cannot serve its function whether it be to support a floor in a house or to provide trim around a window or door.
Likewise, as MTD takes root in a Church body, the Church can no longer serve the function it was intended to do. It does not advance the Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom. It does not operate under the headship of Christ and it does not serve as a compelling witness to the outside world.
In the end, a MTD-gospel fails to produce. Life is hard and sometimes it doesn’t work out and ultimately MT has no answer for it. No wonder many become disillusioned with Christianity when this MTD-gospel is all they are hearing!
How Did We Get Here?
Once you tune your cultural antennae to the presence of MTD around you, you’ll start to see it cropping up everywhere, in subtle ways. So how did we get to the place where MTD so pervasively impacts the Church in the West? At the risk of overly simplifying it, we will boil it down here. It’s a complex concoction of a consumer-driven culture that desires instant gratification, mixed with a limited vision of the gospel and our own itchy ears.
Consumerism began to take root in the post-WWII 20th Century. The idea that the consumer gets what he or she wants, the producer gets their profit, and the economy at large grows with it. Throw in credit cards, marketing and advertising, and you have people constantly seeking to get what they personally want by always asking, “What’s in it for me?” and “How fast can I get it?” We can probably all see this in our own lives when we want everything shipped to our door instantly!
So our culture constantly promotes consumerism with instant gratification, but then many of our churches add to this concoction by promoting a watered-down gospel message that only considers salvation in a personal, private sense.
We are told to pray to ask Jesus into our hearts as the One who died for our sins and in return, we will get to go to heaven! Yes, this is true, but how it misses the larger picture of the gospel that Jesus is King! By making salvation all about a private asking of Jesus into our heart and receiving heaven in return, we leave out any compelling purpose in this life. Sure, we can encourage people to pursue sanctification and to seek to share the gospel with others so they can join you in heaven too. But it ultimately leaves this life lacking in terms of a vision and purpose for the here and now.
When true vision and calling from God is missed, people are left without a compelling purpose for this life. And here is where our itching ears come in 3. Pressured by a consumeristic church culture and small-minded gospel, some pastors proclaim less of Christ and Christ crucified and more about God’s acceptance of you—which is not wholly untrue. But notice how the focus is shifted from worship of a holy God to worship of you, the attendee! The focus goes from God to you and your life. Further adding to the melee is that worship services shift from corporately entering the presence of a holy God to providing attendees (i.e. consumers) with a good experience, one where they feel lifted up instead of lifting up Christ.
This experience does not lead one to the paradox of the true gospel. Instead, it plays right into the hand of the MTD belief system which whispers, “You can remain in control and have all that you want now.” It’s a short leap to accepting or entertaining that God will actually intervene to make sure you don’t suffer too much, all the while leaving you in control. And so we land at a point where it is not difficult to see how many are swayed, enticed and indeed deceived to live out the MTD worldview.
What Can We Do About This?
How we should respond is simple, but not easy. We must recalibrate and refocus on the true gospel of Christ. As a jumpmaster in the Army, I was trained to find deficiencies in a parachute rig by inspecting a perfect rig over and over (and over and over…). That way when I encountered a flaw it stood out like a flying cow. Likewise, we need to focus on the true gospel of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. Three major deficiencies that can lead to MTD-like beliefs are a me-centered gospel, a cozy gospel, and a pet (small) gospel.
So first, replace a me-centered Gospel with a Christ-centered Gospel. When we read the Scriptures we must first ask, “What is this telling me about God in Christ?” before asking “What does this say about me and how am I to respond?” The order is important here. As Jesus told the people of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). We read the Scriptures foremost to know Christ and to then know about our own condition and our appropriate response.
Second, replace a cozy gospel with the gospel of the suffering servant. Life will work out for the believer…but not until Jesus returns. Jesus Himself told His disciples and us, “In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”4 The Apostle Paul tells us “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” 5. The rest of Romans Chapter 8 provides us with a blueprint of how to suffer well in this life. The point is that this life will involve suffering, sometimes even unexplainable suffering, but our hope and assurance is ultimately that God is with us through it 6, is truly doing something in our suffering even if we don’t see it 7 and will ultimately see us to the Kingdom come 8. Practically speaking, when we face suffering of any kind, we can ask ourselves if we are keeping eternity in view, are we trusting that God is working in the midst of our chaos, and do we believe that the God who took on flesh and experienced all things (save sin) is there with us in the midst of our suffering.
Finally, replace a small gospel with a big gospel! Our gospel must be more than just a ticket to heaven. Our gospel must proclaim Jesus as King! Eternal life starts now for the believer and we, as His ambassadors bring the rule, reign and authority of Jesus into every space we encounter.
More than just something to do before heaven, we are actually empowered to live our lives as ambassadors of Christ everywhere we go. As Abraham Kuyper put it, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” and as His ambassadors, we are called to live out that claim! Ultimately, it’s a return to Gen 1.28 where we are commanded to both multiply by making disciples and steward the Earth. It gives purpose to our work, our family, our church and all the spaces in-between.
Your life is now part of the grander story of God’s ultimate restoration in Christ.
In the face of the true gospel, the dry-rot of MTD will be exposed for what it truly is—a counterfeit, and it will be replaced with the firm foundation of Christ.