Okay, up to this point I have felt quite comfortable with what I have written and felt that I have written it, if not well, at least saying what and how I want it said. Summarizing those points,
1. I don’t believe Christian ethics should be viewed as deontological (rule based) or teleological (result-based) [or contextual (culturally appropropriate) either]. Rather, I see Christian ethics as the intersection of deontological and teleological (with a respectful notto contextual). Such an intersection effectively becomes a synthesis and, essentially, something unlike either one before.
2. I believe that the guiding principles of Christian ethics centers on God’s will. This makes it primarily “absolutist” although there are aspects of non-absolutist views that are relevant and useful. I do believe that there is adequate reason to believe that genuine conflicts in the guidelines we are to live by. In such a case we should seek the greater good (applying the higher rule over the lesser rule). If one chooses to go the opposite way and say that one should seek the lesser evil… I believe the end result can (or at least should) be the same.
That is where the clear structure ends. Here are some things that I think are problems in the church in applying the greater good principle.
A. Narrow definition of the will of God. This goes back to absolutism models. One way of avoiding conflict in God’s standards is to reduce God’s standards. So when Government says to do one thing and God says to do something else, the church obeys God. That is a good thing, but the fact that God says to honor civil authority is ignored so as to avoid the conflict. Now, I agree with the end result in this case. However, this cavalier tossing aside of aspects of God’s will can cause problems. After all, abortion clinic bombers come up, quite logically, an ethical basis for their acts by grabbing hold of one moral guideline (protect the innocent) while downgrading other aspects of God’s will. Some try to work around the rule not to lie (actually bear false witness… not quite the same thing) by deception. While I agree that there may be times that deception is okay… it is questionable to pretend that one is not bearing false witness when deception leads to the same result.
B. Social justice. There is a stunning amount of the Bible dedicated to the idea of social justice. My favorite is the book of Micah, but there is much much more. Jesus repeats much of the same in the Gospels. Liberation Theologians like to say that God is on the side of the poor, the needy, the innocent. While Liberation Theologians often takes the point to far, they do have a point.
Social justice needs to be near the top on the ethical scale. Micah 6 places social justice above worship.
This matters. Take the story of protecting the Jews in World War II. Would you lie and say you are housing no Jews? Would you speak honestly and declare that you have them, because you don’t want to lie? Or do you refuse to house them in the first place because “it is against the law?” I believe the social justice is higher than governmental regulations (please don’t start bombing abortion clinics… I already spoke about that above) or lying. When in doubt, a good rule of thumb is to err on the side of protecting the downtrodden and the innocent.
C. Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process of personal release of blame and condemnation. Forgiveness should be done because it is God’s will, and in line with God’s character. It is also healthy for us. However, forgiveness is not necessarily the same as reconciliation. It also does not necessitate the removal of consequences. Why is that? Because Christians are to forgive to make peace and lead to unity and growth. It is not meant to hide sin, provide fertile soil for sin to grow, empower the sinner to remain spiritually stunted, and endanger others. The well-being of the offender and the well-being of innocent ones takes priority.
I have seen this problem in churches where a member of a church is attacked (such as rape) by another member of the church. I have seen some churches try to cover that up under the label of “forgiveness.” When the victim is underage it becomes even a bigger problem because the individual lacks power to act independently. All they see is injustice and the evildoer empowered to act again.
D. Government. Churches have trouble with government. Most churches like separation of church and state. However, they commonly link themselves to the state in some rules. For example a lot of churches essentially share the same definitions and rules regarding marriage and divorce with civil authorities. That may have worked 100 years ago when the state tended to accept the expertise of the church in that area. Times have changed and problems result. The church ends up either further reorganizing its understanding to be in line with the state, or it gets more and more frustrated as the government does not keep in line.
Additionally churches have trouble in what to bring before the state. Paul talks about churches seeking to keep its financial conflicts within its own doors instead of taking it before the civil courts. The argument Paul gives is “Can’t the church take care of its own matters?” Perhaps back then it could, but the obvious answer today is absolutely not. The church can’t handle matters, and the call to keep lawsuits out of the courts today can be a tacit agreement to allow the evildoer to prosper in the church. To aid a person in keeping sinning is not actually helping them. Helping them may mean putting them in a position to be punished. The courts today are very different than they were in Corinth, and it seems doubtful that an ad hoc answer to a specific question in a specific cultural setting should be applied unilaterally regardless of the circumstances. Additionally, attempts to apply the passage to criminal activities is even less justified. Some churches try to keep all matters away from civil government. There is no justification Biblically for this. It is for the benefit of the church, society, the perpetrator, the victim, and future victims that justice (tempered with mercy) to ensure good comes of a bad situation.
I am not sure this has been helpful. But I am hoping at least a few random thoughts will at least get some to think. I have seen a lot of ethical problems both in American and Pilipino churches because of a poor understanding of God’s will as it pertains to ethics. We can and should do better.
- The Unethical Church. Part I (missionmusings.wordpress.com)
- The Unethical Church Part II (missionmusings.wordpress.com)