The Unethical Church. Part I

Having attended church since before I was born, I have long been aware of the difficulties that churches have with member discipline. That is, maintaining and enforcing ethical/moral standards. Matthew 18:15-17 has often been used as the sum total of discipline, yet the passage is completely inadequate. First, it provides, at best, a loose set of general principles. Second, how does one really apply it? In church history, some have developed excommunication, others “shunning,” and others “removal from the membership rolls.” Others pride themselves that they are able to overlook almost any form of misbehavior. Churches have trouble finding a balance. Some are like the Church of Corinth. In the first epistle the church prided itself that it “forgave” or ignored gross immorality. In the second epistle the church prided itself that it wasn’t going to let a penitent ex-member back in. Third, some have used the Matthew 18 passage as a method to try to keep sinning through information control.

Additionally, member discipline is inconsistent. Public sexual sins (such as pregnancy outside of marriage) or thievery within the church setting are easy to spot and deal with. However, many very serious sins are ignored or even joked about. Some have taken Paul’s recommendation (Paul never really commands, except to be guided by the Spirit) that church members accept a fraudulent loss from a fellow member rather than go through the embarrassing process of taking the person to court, and extended it to an almost Las Vegas-type of “what happens in the church, stays in the church.” Yet this can lead to the church being a place where sinners are not merely accepted (a good thing), but where their sins are hidden and lawlessly nurtured (a bad thing). Along the same lines, I have seen the Christian’s guidance to forgive used as a justification for maintaining social injustice. The sinner is “forgiven” (interpreted, sadly, as allowed to harm others without consequences) while the victims are ignored or told to keep quiet.

Clearly, there are problems. However, it seems obvious to me that church polity (rules and regulations of the church) is not the main problem (as seriously flawed as it is). The basic, fundamental, problem is:


When I refer to the church, I mean it corporately as well as its members. Perhaps we don’t actual understand morality/ethics. Because of that, we don’t know how to encourage good behavior, and we don’t know what to do about bad behavior. I cannot claim to be an ethicist. At most I can express my opinion and hope that it helps produce decent dialogue for improvement in this area.

Problem #1. What Type of Ethics is Christian Ethics?

When I took Ethics class in seminary, I was told that Christian Ethics is “deontological.” When I was reading Norman L. Geisler‘s book “Christian Ethics: Options and Issues,” it said the same thing on page 24 of the 1989 edition. (By the way, I REALLY like Geisler’s book. The fact that I may disagree with it at times rightly or wrongly, and disagree with Geisler on many other things, doesn’t lessen its value. It is a good book to read.) Deontological ethics is the ethics of rules and regulations. In its strictest sense, the means justifies the ends. If something is right, it is right regardless of the results. (“I told the truth… it doesn’t matter how many people were hurt.”) On the other side is Teleological ethics. It is results-focused. “The end justifies the means.” (“Okay, so I lied… but at least I made them happy.”) Geisler gets much more subtle regarding Deotological ethics to demonstrate it to be Christian, but it seems to me that that subtlety simply attempts to put a round peg in a square hole. Perhaps Christian ethics really isn’t Deontological. And perhaps Christian Ethics is also not Teleological.

David Augsburger in “Counseling Across Cultures” adds a third ethical option… Contextual Ethics. Deontological looks at Right/Wrong, Teleological looks at Good/Bad, while Contextual looks at Fit/Unfit. Some might argue that it is not an ethical system at all, since it is not necessarily moralistic. Others might say it is not a separate type of ethics since it can be shoehorned into one of the other two. The Clean/Unclean issue of food for the Israelites is contextual… however, since it was also written into the Mosaic Law, it could also be described as being deontological. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols in a Hellenistic society in the New Testament is clearly contextual. However, Paul’s explanation of why it is okay to eat sometimes and not at others could be looked at as teleological. I believe it should be looked at (as Augsburger does) as a separate system. Decisions often must go through a cultural/contextual analysis of “fitness” or “appropriateness” that is outside of the normal Dos and Don’ts of deontological analysis or the results focus of teleological analysis. However, for this post I will not focus on that. I will just assume that contextual appropriateness will also be an unspoken part of analysis. Contextual Ethics is like the ocean, and Christian Ethics is a ship floating on the ocean. The ocean strongly affects a ship and much of the ship is immersed in the ocean. However, the ship is not defined by the ocean and is, in part, external to it.

The figure above shows the Deontological Ethics. Good Actions ethically justify whatever happens. The figure also shows Teleological Ethics. Good Results ethically justify whatever is done. The obvious problem is that just as those two models are disconnected, they can be disconnected in real life as well. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean‘s family is starving, so he steals bread for them (teleological ethics). The police arrest him and put him in jail (very deontological). It sounds all pretty fair. However, the result is a father in jail for trying to help his family survive. Even the means is questionable since, not only did Jean steal, but the police were enforcing a system the created such a huge economic inequity that a man felt forced to steal in the first place. In a given situation, the application of either or both type of ethics can lead to problems all around– bad means and bad results.

I would like to suggest that Christian Ethics is neither of these but (along with contextual ethics) is the combination of the two. Christian actions are those that are both Good in Means and Good in Results (at least anticipated results). When deontological and teleological analyses align, we have Christian ethics. I am tempted to call it “Spiritual Ethics.” But I won’t. Unfortunately, the term “spiritual” has been used to the point that it is a cliché… used to justify or bless almost everything or nothing. Yet, Jesus and Paul and Luke focused on an ethics grounded in being led by Christlikeness or the Spirit, rather than any other system. I think I will call this type of ethics “Christian Ethics.”

Does this solve the problem. Absolutely not… barely even starts to. What happens when there is competing Goods? What happens when all options appear to be Bad? What is the basis for giving priority to one action over another? I will save that for Part II of this post. But I think this is a start. Christians should get away from looking at their ethical viewpoint as (purely) deontological. Christians need to stop looking at the Christian life as a list of Dos and Don’ts.

5 thoughts on “The Unethical Church. Part I

  1. Pingback: The Unethical Church, Part III « MMM — Munson Mission Musings

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