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A Basis for Christian Ethics

How can a Christian keep a good testimony amidst the popularity of situation ethics? Are traditional ethics even relevant in today’s society?

The Sunday school teacher was in a voluble, good humor. He chatted with the class before beginning his lesson. "We’re really enjoying the new bedroom we built on last month." He chuckled a bit and continued. "Now, when the building inspector dropped by, of course, we called it a storage room. Do you know what we would have had to pay in taxes for a new bedroom?"

Marla had trouble concentrating on the lesson that day. A nagging little voice inside suggested that something was radically wrong with the anecdote the teacher related. Yet, the class members had appeared to sympathize—they laughed with him.

It seemed like, well, lying, to Marla. But this was a spiritual leader, and these were Christian people. She tried not to think about it.

Marla recognized a problem that is widespread among Christians today—poor ethics. The seemingly insignificant dishonesty she saw was only a symptom of a larger, very significant problem.

Ethics can be complicated and confusing, or it can be as simple as "Thou shalt," and "Thou shalt not." Briefly stated, ethics is the study of what is right and wrong. The carnal mind prefers to decide ethical questions on the basis of reason, or, more commonly, expediency—"it all depends on the situation." Christians, however, employ the Bible as their ethics manual and the Holy Spirit as their indwelling Guide. Their problem should be not so much how to decide what is right, but how to do it.

Certainly there are many times when the good and the bad do not bear clear labels. In fact, labeling is the very practice that carnal thinkers would have us eliminate, and, to our shame, they have succeeded to a disturbing degree.

When men began to question the authority of the Bible—its authorship and integrity—they repudiated the fixed point of reference that the Bible provides for matters of right and wrong. Situation ethics was a natural outgrowth of skepticism and outright unbelief. The situation ethicist, while retaining a sort of "natural" moral code, is repulsed by the idea that some things are inherently right and others wrong. He believes that God is love. Therefore, he reasons that love is the highest goal a human being can attain. In a moral dilemma, then, he will determine how love may best be served and act accordingly.

He errs first by not recognizing other attributes of God, such as His holiness, when determining his goals; second, by failing to define love in terms consistent with God’s revelation of Himself; and third, by assuming that man is in a position to decide how love is best served. It is absolutely necessary for the situation ethicist to affirm the basic goodness of man because his code of ethics hinges on man’s ability to reason properly.

The Christian, on the other hand, recognizes that his own rational powers are blighted by sin. He knows that apart from God he cannot know truth at all: "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God"(Romans 8:7–8).

Probably most of us can feel rather self-satisfied when discussing "large" issues like adultery or stealing from an employer, but perhaps our view of the "smaller" matters of personal integrity is not much different from the situation ethicist’s. Ethics is too broad a topic for our examination here, but it may be readily narrowed down to include those matters that most conspicuously affect our testimonies before the public.

The following are examples that illustrate poor ethics among God’s people (obviously the same practices are commonplace among the unregenerate):

  • Cheating on income tax—"I don’t believe in income tax anyway. What I earn should be mine."
  • Keeping the extra change the store clerk inadvertently gave you.
  • Using company phone or photocopier for personal business.
  • Habitual failure to be prompt with payment on bills, even when you have the money.

The list could continue until every Christian would say "ouch" at least once. It is incredible how seared some Christians’ consciences have become. Recently I heard of a Christian renter who owed his landlord $2000. When he received settlement of a relative’s estate last year, rather than pay off his outrageous debt, he deposited his inheritance in a high-yield money market account and remained in arrears to his landlord.

Many questions of personal ethics may be settled by the application of general New Testament principles of separation from the world, separation unto Christ, and our responsibility to be lights in a dark world.

Separation from the world involves our purity from carnality, whether that be the influence of radio or television, our associations, our habits, our pastimes, our appearance, etc. We are not to touch the unclean thing or to set it before our eyes. But not only are we to keep sin from us, we are to engage in good works—the positive aspect of ethics. We are to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, and faith.

Good works serve to point men to Christ. Matthew 5:16 says, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

In any instance when we wonder about the right thing to do, we might try applying questions like this: Will God be glorified by my action? Will I cause a brother to offend his conscience by my action? Would I sacrifice my light-bearing quality before the unsaved by my action?

The situation ethicist has to rely on his own feeble reason because he rejects the help that is available to anyone who truly desires it. Because the Word of God is our handbook, we need to learn to appropriate its instructions. Sometimes these are not immediately clear. In such cases, we have the best possible aid—the Holy Spirit, who, according to John 16:13, will guide us into all truth.

We also have the assistance of a new, changed nature and conscience to monitor our behavior. We enjoy the special privilege of prayer, and, finally, we can benefit from the experience and discernment of other Christians.

How can a discussion of ethics affect our daily walk? The answer is that by becoming aware that our dealings with fellow Christians, the unsaved community, and the government are matters of ethics, we will be more careful to measure them against God’s biblical standard. For instance, before my children I will refuse to criticize my brothers and sisters in Christ; in restaurants I will be careful to pay the expected tip, considering it part of the expense of eating out; on the highway I will obey the speed limit—whether or not I spot an unmarked car—because my testimony depends on it. In short, how we win the major ethical conflicts will largely be determined by how we’ve been combating the "little foxes" all along.

Ethics does not need to be theory shrouded by mystery. Ethics should be removed from the realm of theory and placed in the concrete world of practice. To the situation ethicist who would have us debate "Yes, but what if . . . ?" we can reply that the situation never determines the ethics. With the Holy Spirit within us, we have the best possible resource for decision-making. Our ethics are vital as part of our testimony. Paul encouraged the Philippians to "work out [their] . . . salvation [that is, to let the inward change be outwardly visible] . . . That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:12, 15).

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