Friday, November 08, 2013

Christian Ethics

I was with a class last night and we tried to disentangle what seems to me to be some obvious confusion out there about Christian ethics.

1. First, Christian ethics is, at its heart, a virtue based ethic.  That is to say, its most fundamental concern is a person's character, motives, and intentions.
  • The acts that flow from one's character are a secondary order of business.
  • This is not just the nature of Christian ethics but this is the most mature ethic, period.
  • This is Jesus' ethic ("out of the heart come") and Paul's ethic ("a person is justified by faith").
  • This is the most mature understanding of sin ("willful transgression" versus "missing the mark").
2. Absolutes (in ethics) are duties to which there are no exceptions.
  • There are Christian ethical absolutes, but an ethical orientation around absolutes is an act-based ethical orientation rather than a virtue-based orientation. It is a less mature ethical orientation than one oriented around a person's character.
3. The two fundamental Christian absolutes are 1) love God and 2) love neighbor/enemy.
  • As absolutes, there are no exceptions. There is no circumstance where hatred of neighbor is justified. Love of God never contradicts love of neighbor/enemy.
  • The Bible cannot be used as an excuse to hate any person, period. Jesus is the highest authority on this issue (Matt. 22), and the New Testament unanimously agrees (Paul, James, John).
  • Although it is humanly difficult to parse, you can "hate" a sin while loving a person who sins.
  • To say something is a "wrong" or a "sin" is not intrinsically unloving toward someone who does it. 
  • The "judging" that is wrong is when one jumps to conclusions about another person's intentions.
  • Loving someone has to do with the way you act toward them--it is not the same as liking them. It is not a feeling.
  • Loving others does not mean always giving them their way. Justice can be formative and thus loving. Incarceration can be loving toward the society it protects.
4. In "act-based" mode, the default ethical mode of Christian ethics is universal right and wrong, with exceptions.
  • No one is absolutist on every issue. A conviction, for example, is an issue on which you believe God requires something of you that he does not require of others. That is the definition of something that is ethically relative. Convictions, by definition, are an example of ethical relativism.
  • There are clear issues where the Bible makes exceptions to ethical principles. So Romans 13 says to obey your rulers. Yet Acts 5 shows Peter making an exception to this principle--when the rulers come into direct conflict with God's command. By definition, therefore, the command to obey your rulers is not an absolute command but a universal command that has exceptions.
  • This is the ethical mode in which Jesus and Paul operated (if you look at them from an act-based standpoint). Jesus makes an exception to the Sabbath rule when he talks about plucking grain or getting your ox out of a ditch. 
  • On most ethical decisions, therefore, the default mode is not absolutist without exceptions but based on universal principles that are ranked and applied with a view to circumstances. 
  • But again, a virtue-based approach is morally superior to this sort of legal-oriented, act-based moral way of thinking (think biblical Pharisees and Judaizers).
5. You therefore cannot dismiss a position by labeling it "relativist" or "not absolutist."
  • The right position in some instances will be relative or will make exceptions. It is the easy way to think you can sort out ethics by labeling, but it is obviously flawed thinking and morally immature.
  • Sorting out exceptions and determining the right course of action under different circumstances is just plain hard work. 
  • "Black and white" thinking is not biblical thinking, and it is morally immature thinking. Children, as part of their moral development, go through a stage of black and white thinking, but part of reaching adulthood is understanding the need to take context into account when making moral judgments. Why did the child do what it did is more important ethically than what the child did. 
6. Mature moral thinking integrates most of the major ethical approaches:
  • It will be oriented primarily around a person's character--why he or she does what he or she does.
  • It will involve a sense of basic moral duties (love, don't murder, don't steal, don't lie) but it will organize these values into a hierarchy. Exceptions to lower values are made when a higher value is in play.
  • It will look to the greatest good for the greatest number ("consider others before yourself").
  • When all the other moral filters are passed, it will act for its own pleasure.
7. A lot of popular Christian rhetoric and theology today tends to stilt the moral growth of the church.  It perpetuates a biblical and moral immaturity, keeping the church in moral adolescence.


John Mark said...

Excellent and thought provoking. I'll give in to temptation and ask for some general examples of what you mean on point seven, if you care to.

Ken Schenck said...

I mean, for example, the focus on moral absolutism, which makes it difficult to work through moral nuances. It also plays into inflexibility and a refusal to compromise on principle.

Susan Moore said...

Referring to #4.
In regards to obeying one's rulers, it seems the lesson to be learned is this: in a matter of conflict, obey one's highest ruler; the ruler with the greatest power. In Acts 5 God trumped the humans.
That mode is operating today in our own land. When there have been made conflicting laws, we must obey the laws of the nation over the laws of the state, and the state laws over the local laws.
The issue with the Sabbath is the same, but different. It incorporates the idea of obeying the higher authority, but in a way that takes into consideration an understandings of that authority's nature.
Hosea 6:6, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." Once that is understood about the nature of God, then verses regarding that Hosea verse in Matthew chapters 9 and 12 make sense, and no longer seem arbitrary (or mysteriously relative).

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I agree that there are developmental issues to consider, but aren't there also experiential and personality to consider?

Some people are hyper-energetic by nature, while hyperactivity could cover over an anxiety provoked performance. The latter might tend toward a position of absolutism because it makes them feel more secure.

Children that have been conditioned to be circumspect, look for the "standard" so that they can measure themselves, (and others) to prevent and protect their sense and need for order. I don't see anything wrong per se with order, unless it becomes abusive to those that are more free spirited. I think the Founders called it ordered liberty. (Rulers do not lord it over others.....)

Just my thoughts.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Character" is just what? How is character distinct from personality? Isn't personality an innate nature that should be embraced, weaknesses, as well as strengths? Or is there a "one size fits all" character, such as the Jesus as moral model?

It seems that whatever is particularly beneficial to leadership qualifies as the ideal character, which is labelled "virtuous". A confrontational character, or a submissive character can be useful or a hinderance in certain situations.

Rob Henderson said...

My greatest struggle with an individual as a pastor was with someone who preached against legalism so much that he became legalistic about his freedom in Christ.

Ken Schenck said...

Angie, to me, character has to do with our intentions as they lead to choices.

Interesting, Rob.

Thanks Susan

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ken, are you suggesting that there is a "right and wrong" choice, then, in every "cross in the road"?

Choices are aligned with our interests, values, goals, and so much more. How could intentions be gauged as "bad or good", in that sense? Are "outcomes" the measure for particular purposes? If so, is resisting Obamacare sinful, because we are resisting the authorities that have made the Obamacare law? Though Obamacare was to bring healthcare coverage to all Americans, we find that many are loosing their coverage and are unable to get online to register. And insurance companies are pulling out due to the impossible demands that Obamacare makes. Since profit is considered "evil" when gauged against the backdrop of "humanity", then, Obamacare thinks it moral to put the companies out of business, or take over the business, by controlling their decision-making? I think it immoral to take away the right of Americans to make a self responsible choice about their personal family budgets!!!