Misusing and Misunderstanding the doctrine of Human Fallenness

The belief that humans are fallen – that we’re inclined to selfish and harmful behavior – is one of the most essential and demonstrateably true doctrines in Christianity. But it can also be misused and misunderstood.

Not long ago I posted a link to an article from National Review’s David French. The article defended the so-called “Pence Rule”. French’s basic logic was that we should recognize that people are fallen and then build in appropriate boundaries to account for such fallenness. This seems like sound logic to me, though there are dangers in the particulars, like in cases of gender discrimination that could arise with overly inflexible or legalistic rules. The details of the “Pence Rule” aside, a friend of mine took issue with the underlying logic. He understood French as using the doctrine of human fallenness as a way to “excuse” bad behavior from men. That is, he seemed to understand the concept as a dangerous way to lower moral standards and reduce moral responsibility.

This is a significant misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine. For, while in the concept of “fallenness” Christianity offers an explanation of why people often act in wicked ways, it does not provide them with an excuse – it does not reduce our moral responsibility to act right. My response to my friend was as follows:

“I want to clarify a pretty major misunderstanding of what the author or I would mean by the word “fallen.” You portray “falleness” as excuse for bad behavior. That couldn’t be further from the truth. From a Christian perspective, human nature is, indeed, fallen. That is, we are by nature selfish. But we are both guilty of this condition and also guilty for acting in accordance with it. I would certainly never accept “well, I’m fallen” as an excuse in myself or in others for inappropriate behavior. That would be a mere flimsy rationalization.

Of course, the term “fallen” is a religious term and I would use it in a religious way, but the concept of recognizing that human nature isn’t exactly perfect can be understood in secular terms as well. I just saw a very interesting lecture from atheist sociologist Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) who described human nature as “tribal” and biased. This is our nature, he said, but that doesn’t mean we have to act that way. Even someone who doesn’t believe in moral absolutes (in the same way that I do) believes that we are responsible for “rising above” our “nature”.

The idea that humans are fallen is built into our system of government. Our founders recognized that power was often used badly and that it led to tyranny and corruption. And so, they devised a system of checks and balances and gave power to the States and to individuals. They recognized something about human nature and built in systems and safeguards to prevent the damage it could do.

In fact, the concept of flawed and frail human nature is all-pervasive, whether it’s given a secular or a religious connotation. Stores have security cameras, police patrol the streets, DQA audits our verification results. In none of these instances is the recognition that people sometimes steal, sometimes commit crimes, and sometimes cut corners used as an excuse for that behavior. Instead, the recognition that this happens is used to protect against that bad behavior.”

At first, I was surprised that my friend would understand the doctrine of human fallenness in this way and be so guarded against its misuse. But upon further reflection, I shouldn’t have been. In fact, I’ve been seeing Christians regularly misuse the doctrine in exactly the way my friend worried about – to excuse bad behavior or lower moral standards – for a good two years now.

This came up again recently in the case of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore who has been credibly accused of molesting young teenage girls when he was in his 30s. I recently read an article from a philosopher who argued that even if Moore is guilty of was he is accused of, Christians should still vote for him, and do so without moral qualms. His argument rests, in large part, upon the doctrine of fallenness. He argues that everybody sins (true) and that all politics is dirty (probably also true) and that therefore we can never engage in politics if we want to remain morally pure. For the author, then, all politics is a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils. Every choice is binary, and the moral character of our elected officials shouldn’t really matter. Or, they might matter but, in this case, we shouldn’t apply them.

There are several problems with this article, and David French (yup, the guy from above) gave an excellent response. But my concern is what the author does with the doctrine of fallenness. He uses it to excuse and minimize sin – everybody sins so we shouldn’t be so concerned with a guy taking advantage of young girls. Then he uses it to remove standards – nobody’s perfect so we shouldn’t apply a moral standard of elected officials.

So, allow me to set the record straight: Yes, we’re all fallen. Yes, we all sin. But that doesn’t excuse our bad behavior. We have a moral responsibility, and God will not hold us guiltless because we are “fallen”. Furthermore, moral standards still matter – especially for those in leadership. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that private sins don’t stay private, and that bad personal character among public leaders inevitably has a negative affect on the public – in a church, a business, or a government.

We can’t do without the doctrine of fallenness: It helps us setup appropriate boundaries to account for it. Perhaps most critically it helps us see and receive the grace and mercy God offers us in Jesus. But it doesn’t offer us an excuse for sin. It doesn’t remove the need for moral standards and accountability.