MORAL GOVERNMENT THEOLOGY: IS IT PELAGIAN?
by Greg Robertson, 1981
This essay investigates a form of teaching known as Moral Government Theology (MGT), comparing it with Pelagianism. Many have mistaken MGT to be compatible with Arminianism, but a closer look will reveal a system more closely related to Pelagianism, and some would even say, a system that is Pelagian. When I first started comparing the two systems I thought that Moral Government teaching was simply a plagiarism of Pelagius, because many of the statements made by MGT teachers were everything but identical to the statements of Pelagius, Caelestius and Julian of Eclanum, the chief proponents of Pelagianism. However, there are some differences which this essay shall point out.,
My experience with MGT came through Youth With A Mission (YWAM), an international organization that specializes in the recruitment and training of youth for world evangelism. In YWAM I sat under the teaching of such MGT greats as Gordon Olson and George Otis Jr. Since I was a staff printer and bindery worker I also printed MGT papers that were used in the YWAM schools. Although MGT has had a sporadic existence for centuries, the form we will here cover is contemporary and chiefly taught in YWAM. Some of its main tenets, however, date back to the fifth century.
Pelagius, a British monk that spent some years in Rome in the early fifth century, observed a luxurious and corrupt Christianity and attributed it to certain theological views which seemed to condone and harbor such practices and attitudes. His teaching is summed up in this account of what he said in response to the Roman Christians and the excuses they were making for their sins;
"Away with such despicable excuses", he would say. "It is not the strength that you lack, but the will. Up, rouse yourselves. You could do better if you would. God has given you a nature that enables you to choose the right. You can avoid sinning if you wish. If you sin, it is not because you are under any compulsion to sin, but because of your misuse of your free-will. Besides, it must be remembered that to commit sin and then to lay the blame on the weakness of your nature is really to lay the blame on God, who gave men this nature. God commands nothing impossible. It is sheer profanity to say that God has laid certain duties upon us and at the same time has given us a nature incapable of performing them.(1)
Compare that statement of Pelagius with a statement made by the foremost contemporary teacher of MGT, Gordon C. Olson:
"We are sinners simply because we choose to sin or live selfishly. We are never held accountable for what we are not the author of. Ability is always the measure of responsibility. God has given us the ability to direct our lives, either according to intelligence in recognition of our obligation to God and to our fellow men, or according to selfishness and unintelligence in the supreme seeking of our own happiness."(2)
It is plainly manifest that these two systems have some of the same principles in operation. By examining both of the above statements, we could arrive at the same conclusions. Pelagianism has gone through such examination since its inception in the fifth century.
When Pelagius was in Rome he met and became friends with a certain Caelestius. Caelestius agreed with and propagated the views of Pelagius which led to the council of Carthage in the year 412. In this council seven points of error were said to be found in the writings of Caelestius:
"1. Adam was created mortal, and would have died, even if he had not sinned.
2. Adam's fall injured himself alone, not the human race.
3. Children come into the world in the same condition in which Adam was before the fall.
4. The Human race neither dies in consequence of Adam's fall, nor rises again in consequence of Christ's resurrection.
5. Unbaptized children, as well as others, are saved.
6. The law, as well as the gospel, leads to the kingdom of heaven.
7. Even before Christ there were sinless men."(3)
In point number one it is said that Adam was created mortal. This is the only point that MGT would completely disagree with. The Pelagians taught that the fall of Adam "brought no consequences, either to the soul or body of Adam, still less to his posterity, who all stand or fall for themselves."(4)
On the other hand, MGT teaches that man's rebellion brought physical depravity into the world:
"Our weakened and unbalanced physical condition constitutes what we call physical depravity and contributes to the development of moral depravity. Physical depravity is not to be thought of as a loss of the ability of free will, but as introducing a bias or tendency toward self-gratification--an obstacle which must be overcome by right moral action."(5)
We shall soon see (pg. 5) that what is here called moral depravity is quite different than the usual definition. The physical depravity has brought; sickness, weaker mental faculties, emotional disturbances related to the physical deterioration, and finally death.(6) This physical depravity makes it "easier to sin or gratify ourselves than to do what our enlightened mind declares to be right and proper.(7) Pelagius did give place to being "corrupted indeed by external environment(8) but MGT gives physical depravity such place as is inconsistent with Pelagianism proper.
In point number two it is stated that Adam's sin only injured himself as expounded by A. H. Strong:
"The only effect of Adam's sin upon his posterity is the effect of evil example; it has in no way corrupted human nature; the only corruption of human nature is that habit of sinning which each individual con tracts by persistent transgression of known law."(9)
The physical aspect in MGT would vary somewhat with this view as we have already seen in point one. The moral aspect, however, seems to correspond perfectly with Pelagianism. As we have seen in Pelagianism, corruption comes by persistence in transgression of known law, so also in MGT, but MGT calls such corruption moral depravity as used by Olson in the above quotation (number 5). This concept is further clarified as we look deeper into the Moral Government views:
"Moral depravity, on the other hand, is always a voluntary depravity. It is a state or condition of our moral nature that is the result of what we have done. Moral depravity is a developed habit of life, a tendency to keep on doing what we have been doing. Every wrong action deepens the ruts of our depravity until we develop mighty monsters of bondage, either amiable or degraded as men view things, that require ever-increasing energy of will to counteract."(10)
Philip Schaff expounds well upon the Pelagian view:
"There is, therefore, according to this system, no original sin, and no hereditary guilt. Pelagius merely conceded, that Adam, by his disobedience, set a bad example, which exerts a more or less injurious influence upon his posterity. He was also inclined to admit an increasing corruption of mankind, though he ascribed it solely to the habit of evil, which grows in power the longer it works and the farther it spreads. Sin, however, is not born with man; it is not a product of nature, but of the will. Man is born both without virtue and without vice, but with the capacity for either. The universality of sin must be ascribed to the power of evil example and evil custom."(11)
Moxon sheds further light on the subjects
"Sin, he said, is not born with a man, and is a fault not of the nature but of the will. To maintain otherwise would be to impute evil to the Creator.
Thus Caelestius maintained that sin was something committed by man after birth and was a personal act of the will, independent of any antecedent evil propensity. The only moral corruption possible, according to this view, is the result of repeated sin and is therefore only to be found in adults."(12)
The Moral Government view is expounded further upon by George Otis Jr. in his book The God They Never knew:
"A sinful nature is developed in our lives through habitual self-indulgence and subsequently begins to affect everything we do. Paul makes mention of this situation and the impossibility of fighting it in our own strength in the seventh chapter of Romans.
Thus we concur that a law or sinful nature is present but we must also see that it originated by choice. A good example of this is a junkie bound by an addiction to heroin. He cannot help put (sic) crave drugs; but its origin was in his choices."(13)
When Otis talks about the impossibility of fighting it in our own strength he is talking about advanced cases of moral depravity (used in the Moral Government sense), where the habits of sin are so developed that only in perceiving the character of God in the crucifixion of Christ, can a person receive the power to reform his moral life and thereby become acceptable to God.(14) This corresponds to Olson's idea of bondage that requires an ever increasing energy of will to counteract. Within this system it is maintained that repentance in the New Testament "was never mentioned as an end in itself, but as a means to salvation."(15) It is also maintained that "repentance is the condition of, or the prerequisite to, salvation."(16) The repentance spoken of here is not a repentance of turning from a state of unbelief to a state of faith, but a form of repentance that supercedes faith and makes faith subordinate to works.(17) Both Pelagianism and MGT are systems within which salvation is by works.
Point number three states that children are in the same condition as Adam was before the fall. This point is a logical conclusion of the points already covered. If there is no inherited guilt or depravity, and Adam's fall has not affected his posterity morally, then it follows that babies come into the world in the same condition as Adam before the fall. The only difference in the views is that MGT gives more place to physical depravity.
Points four, five, six, and seven, are also logical conclusions of the points and principles we have already covered. I can remember MGT teachers stating that there were people that lived their lives without sinning (point seven). Enoch and Elijah were two examples cited, attention being given to the fact that they never had to die physical deaths.
The actions, reactions, and attitudes of the Pelagians in the fifth century and the actions, reactions, and attitudes of present day Moral Government people mirror each other. Pelagius and Caelestius tried to hide their views after they were condemned as heresy, denying many times that they held them although there were many proofs that they did.(18) Likewise, YWAM has been confronted about MGT by research. organizations such as the Christian Research Institute and the Christian Apologetics: Research and Information Service of Orange County, California. YWAM leaders deny that such doctrines are taught much in the organization and say that they disagree with the views of MGT.
I joined YWAM in 1973 and was a staff worker for five and one-half years. When I joined I had no theological background or training of any kind. When I left the organization I was saturated with and zealously defended MGT and its assertions, although I did not really understand what it was. All my knowledge of other systems came from straw man arguments which I receive d in the schools and intellectual atmosphere of the organization. Within the organization there were no theological works for the investigation of other views available.
MGT has taken the views a step further than the Pelagians did; it is denied that God could have foreknowledge in the case of free-will beings; it is denied that God is morally immutable; it is taught that God changes his mind and counsels; and it is taught that Christ's death did not pay for our sins.(19)
I believe MGT is on its way to
denying the deity of Christ and becoming classified as a
non-Christian cultic system of doctrine. All theology that
disagrees with the Moral Government view is already denounced as
being the teaching of non Christian deceivers.(20) But, as the Moral Government saying goes,
"No man is deceived unless he wants to be deceived ."(21)
SOLA GRATIA. SOLO
CHRISTO. SOLA FIDE. SOLA SCRIPTURA.
Olson, Gordon C., Sharing Your Faith, Youth With A Mission edition, Hurlach, W. Germany, Truth Press international, n. d.
Otis, George Jr., The God They Never Knew, Van Nuys, California, Bible Voice Publishers, 1977,
Moxon, Reginald Stewart, The Doctrine of Sin, George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1922.
Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, III. fifth edition revised, Grand Rapids, Michigan Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing company, April 1981.
Chadwick, Henry, The Pelican History of the Church, I, The Church, Owen Chadwick, general editor, Great Britain, Cox & Wyman, Ltd, 1981.
Strong, Augustus Hopkins, Systematic Theology, Old Tappan, N.J., Fleming H. Revell Company
Gomes, Alan, Lead Us Not Into Deception [Now available for download], second edition, copyright 1981, Alan Gomes, n.p. Mr. Gomes has since become Dr. Gomes and teaches full time at Talbot Theological Seminary in La Mirada, California. An updated edition was printed in 1986 which contained extensive photocopied documentation that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that YWAM was heavily involved in the teaching of MGT. The 1986 edition also contained a testimony by Greg Robertson with an honest account of his 5 1/2 year full-time YWAM experience.
To study more about Moral Government Theology from a highly documented and scholarly source, go to CRI Journal - CRJ0184A
More information about Youth With A Mission Apologetics Index - Yogic Flying Yoneq Youth With A Mission Etc. Includes information from Harold Bussell.
Rick Ross on YWAM
Go here to learn about Spiritual Abuse. If you have been spiritually abused, don't continue blaming yourself, get help!
1. Reginald Stewart Moxon, The Doctrine of Sin, P. 50.
2. Gordon C. Olson, Sharing Your Faith, T. 38, (YWAM edition of Hurlach, W. Germany).
3. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. III, P. 793.
4. Schaff, op. cit., p. 806.
5. Olson, op. cit., p. 44.
6. Olson,.op. cit. pp. 43, 44.
7. Olson, op. cit. p. 44.
8. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 228.
9. Augustus Hopkins-Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 597.
10. Olson, loc. cit.
11. Schaff, op. cit., p. 806.
12. Moxon, op. cit., P. 59.
13. George Otis Jr., The God They Never Knew, p. 76.
14. Otis, op. cit., pp. 105-131.
15. Otis, op. cit., p. 139.
16. Otis, loc . cit
17. Otis, op. cit., p. 140.
18. Moxon, op. cit., p. 57. Schaff, op. cit., pp. 793, 795, and 797-798. Chadwick, op. cit., p. 230.
19. For full coverage of these errors see the book by Alan Gomes, Lead Us Not Into Deception.
20. Otis, op. cit., pp. 1-32.
21. Otis, op. cit., p. 169.
This was the first academic paper I ever wrote. It was written for a Church History class at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California 1981. My findings surprised me and set me on a quest to learn more of the truth in light of Scripture and church history.