You know how you feel when you hear someone say something you’ve thought for a while? That’s the feeling I got when Andy Stanley started out this morning at The Orange Conference talking about what he calls vertical morality, which he defined as peace with God based on keeping peace with God. It’s an approach to Christianity that sees God mostly as someone who is offended by our sins, and so we try to appease Him and constantly ask for forgiveness from Him. And as long as we ask for His forgiveness, we are good. Meanwhile, we often ignore asking for forgiveness from others.

This is the mindset I had for most of my younger life. I’m not quite sure where I got it. Perhaps it was something I learned or maybe it was my own interpretation of the Bible. Maybe it was a combination of both. I knew that it seemed a bit off, but I wasn’t exactly sure why until Andy brought it to light today.

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Photo & drawing by The Sketch Effect (@TheSketchEffect)

This line of thinking, Andy explained, often leads to asking questions like, “Is ________ a sin?” And what we really want to know is what we can get away with. In other words, how close can I get to sin without sinning?

God would say that’s totally the wrong question!

Andy believes this thought came from the Old Covenant/Testament and was based on a relationship between God and Israel’s leadership, not the individuals. If the leaders were doing well, God would bless the nation. If they weren’t, all the Israelites would suffer. This happened in spite of individual Israelites following the Law or not. It all came down to cause and effect. The majority (if not all) of the effects were based on God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.

But God even hinted that this was temporary. He was clear that something new and better was coming!

At this point, Andy turned to John 1:29, where John the Baptist says, “Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Jesus came on the scene at just the right time, born of a woman and under the Law. He started to point to a new covenant and even summarized the Law into two commands: essentially to love God and love others. Andy pointed out that Jesus summarized it even more in John 13:34-35 to love everyone the way He has loved us. This “new command” was one only He had the authority to give. He even took the Passover meal and changed it — instead of remembering the Exodus story, we are told to do it in remembrance of Him as the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus established what Andy calls horizontal morality, which he defined as fellowship with God based on the rule of Christ. Everybody is somebody for whom Jesus gave his life. Practically speaking, if you’re not okay with Jesus and how He loved, you’re not okay with God. And according to the rule of Christ, we cannot dismiss people and be right with God. Jesus clearly loved everyone.

After spending time in 1 John 2, Andy pointed out, “If we’re not careful, we will orient people toward obeying an invisible God rather than loving visible people.”

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Getting a bit more practical, Andy then explained what this can look like in our teaching:

  • Why should we not lie? Because it puts down other people, saying they are worthless.
  • Why should we be generous? Because it helps people.
  • Why should you not talk bad about people? It diminishes others’ significance.
  • Why should guys not pressure their girlfriends for sex before marriage? Because we don’t want to do anything that will hurt another person or diminish their future relationships. We shouldn’t be anyone’s regret.

He then suggests a good rule of thumb might be: if it’s not best for others, then it’s probably a sin.

With a vertical morality, we often go to the Old Testament to explain how we should act. Andy pointed out, though, that Paul never quotes the Old Testament for matters of conduct. Further, all the New Testament imperatives are simply applications of Jesus’ new commandment to love. It all comes back to how we were treated through Christ by our Heavenly Father.

This takes away all the loopholes.

Before wrapping up, Andy made sure to explain that horizontal morality is way less complicated, but way more demanding than vertical! Horizontal all comes down to a simple question: “What does love require of you?”

The best way to please our Father in Heaven is to honor the people around us!

What do you think about this vertical vs. horizontal morality concept? Let me know in the comments!


You can follow Andy Stanley on Twitter @AndyStanley. You can also check out deepandwidetour.com to find out more information on Andy’s future tour in connection with the Orange Tour, all based on his book, Deep and Wide.

Want more from The Orange Conference 2017? Click here!

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8 thoughts on “Vertical vs. Horizontal Morality

  1. Hey Steve thanks for taking great notes at 2017 Orange Conference. This year my wife has come and attend with me as well.

    I have read all of you blogs each night just to refresh everything I heard each day. Just wanted to let you know how much I have appreciated.

    Looking forward today on hearing more before heading home tomorrow. Thanks again for posting.

  2. I enjoy Andy Stanley’s emphasize on loving others. I believe that we should certainly consider the effect that our sin will have on others. But, I think that we obey God because he is God and He asks us to obey Him.
    I think, too, that the Bible tells one big story and although we rejoice that we live under the New Covenant and should be grateful for the freedom that it entails, but don’t throw out the Old Testament.

    During the talk Andy said that he didn’t know why the Old Testament was even connected to the New Testament. That disturbed me.

  3. I actually had a very negative reaction to Andy Stanley’s talk. In fact, what he said was borderline heresy. The idea that vertical and horizontal morality exist is not even a Biblical idea to start with. Secondly, he is creating a false dichotomy where those two can’t exist at the same time. The emphasis of the talk and theme of Orange being on loving your Neighbor as yourself. Andy I felt like forgot the first part of Jesus response which was quoting the Old Testament, something he feels is obsolete now, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. He essentially sums up the Ten Commandments in two phrases. Doug Fields said something in the following breakout sessions that I think was exactly on point. He said “Don’t love your neighbor at the cost of your worship to God.” Yes we need to do a better job at loving our neighbor, yes a lot of what he said is correct, but both things are true. If loving our neighbor is all there is, then what separates us from any other belief system that believes the same thing?

    Andy completely lost me when he compared Old Testament to an obsolete flip phone. I wouldn’t have as big of an issue if he strictly said Old covenant, but there is a huge difference between old covenant and Old Testament, something he didn’t seem to recognize throughout his talk. If the old law was obsolete and not important, what was the purpose of Jesus fulfilling it all? If Old Testament was obsolete, why did Jesus quote from it often to make his point, why did Paul refer to it often as well, In fact why did Paul write his passage in 2 Timothy 3:17 that all scripture is inspired and good for teaching?

    Do we need to be for our neighbor, absolutely. Caleb Kaltenbach said it best in his breakout session when he said, “Theological convictions should never be a catalyst to devalue human beings.” We need to be for our neighbors but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore our worship to God.

    1. Yes, the concept of vertical and horizontal morality is definitely a human creation. I wonder if Andy just didn’t say it as well as he should have. I know when my wife and I talked about it, and when I share what I learned with others since the conference, I go back to both things Jesus said — not just the one. Andy is correct in saying that Jesus did give one command to love others as He has loved us, but like you said, we still have to love God too! To me, it seemed like Andy was wanting to emphasize the “for our neighbors” theme so much that he might have went a bit overboard. Nonetheless, I did learn a lot from him, even if I didn’t agree with everything he said. Was there anything in particular that you feel was helpful from his message?

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