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").
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.