The danger of virtue-signaling


Until a few months ago, I had not heard the term “virtue-signaling.” There doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted definition of the term, but I understand it to be a reference to any effort to appear morally superior by taking a popular stand on an issue. It is usually used in a pejorative sense; it is used as a criticism of the signaler.

The irony of using this term is that one could accuse the user of the term as doing his own virtue-signaling; this is the danger of all criticism. As Christians, we have to keep in mind Jesus’ warning about the log and the speck. It is so much easier for each of us to see the faults of others while ignoring our own.

With Jesus’ warning in mind, I press on.

One of the issues I have seen in Christendom is the desire to establish credibility with those who would be considered the cultural and educational elites. Many Christian colleges have had their Christian testimony compromised or destroyed by trying to win academic respect from the culture at large.

Christianity is by nature counter to many aspects of the surrounding culture and while we may not feel comfortable about it, it is true. Jesus did say:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Matthew 10:34, ESV

Truth always brings separation. Truth, by definition, is incompatible with what is not true. So any time that we are trying to appeal to the culture around us, we are in danger of compromising the truth. This is the first problem with virtue-signaling.

In Luke 14:7–11, Jesus warns of the dangers of self-promotion. The warning applies to individuals and I also believe that it applies to church congregations. We need to be on guard against the lure of using sermons on the issue of the day as a means of establishing credibility in the community.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that Jesus is the one who has the authority and the power to build his church (Matthew 16:18). If we allow the issue of the day to take precedence over the thoughtful and accurate proclamation of the word of God, we have usurped Christ’s authority and taken on a responsibility that is not ours. This is the second problem with virtue-signaling.

But neither can we ignore the issues of the day. As Christians, we believe that the Bible speaks to every issue that humans will face and it is our duty and privilege to communicate the truth of Scripture and how it speaks to what is happening in the surrounding culture.

But having proclaimed what Scripture teaches, we then need to do it.

James tells us that we are to be doers and not merely hearers of the word of God (James 1:22). Our rhetoric needs to be backed up with action. Mother Teresa was not honored because she talked about working with the destitute, she was honored because she went and did it.

There is nothing wrong with church leaders wanting to speak to the moral issues of the day, but if all we do is add to the rhetoric we are not making a substantive contribution. The danger is that we can form a reliance on how current and (dare I say it?) woke we are to help grow the numbers of people coming to our services.

So the third danger of virtue-signaling is that we can say more than we do. This is true for individual Christians and is also true for church congregations. We need to be on our guard against trying to appear better than we really are.

We need to be ever vigilant against our inner Pharisee.